Endangering the Pavement Hawk

-there’s money to be had on the pavement

 We all bear a secret grudge against pavement hawkers. Maybe one of them cheated you, or intimidated you when you were a kid or was rude to your mom or felt your bum or whatever. Pavement hawkers wouldn’t really rank high on our lists of favourite people.They clog up the streets, the block access to legitimate shops, they scream in your ear, they pollute and they conjest. The city is a lot less refined looking cause of them.

Many (mostly on the side of the government) hail the current drive to clear the streets of Colombo of pavement hawkers as a bold move heralding our entrance bid to become one of Asia’s more developed economies. Others snidely remark on other various measures that are adopted to clean up the face of Colombo before the IIFA awards, like the uncharacteristically ultra-efficient road painting going on in the Negombo road.

But there is no denying that illegal pavement hawkers are a problem, and must be tackled,  indeed it won’t be fair to say that this is  clean up effort prior to the Indian invasion so to speak. The government has been doing this for some time and not only in Colombo, but current methods strike me to be too symptom oriented and not actual disease focussed.

Impulse Purchase

To provide a viable solution to your average pavement hawker, we must ask; what makes it profitable to be a pavement hawker? Most pavement hawkers probably make barely enough to eke out a living at that. But they do that primarily out of catering to impulse rather than actual needs. Think about it, whenever you bought something off the pavement, it was out of impulse wasn’t it? Unless of course, you actually set out from home looking to buy a pen torch that can also write in five different colors, cheap/fake Ray-Bans and Rolexes or wierd fake mustaches and beards harking back to the era of ancient Sri Lankan kings.

Such impulse products rely on supply to create demand. If it’s there, you buy it. If it isn’t there, you don’t. So, obviously the ideal places to sell products such as these are places where people gather. The sellers must go to the buyers. The market must literally be in the way of the potential customer. It more or less relies on this characteristic to survive. Hence the inherent nature of your average illegal pavement economy.

An Impotent Solution

So far the solution for these people has been to relocate them to shopping mall like buildings that accommodate them in concrete stalls in a many storeyed building. The building is located in a busy area of the city, sure but hardly in a place where customers frequent it. Therefore the businesses soon fall apart or return to the streets to survive. Current solutions are impotent, they only result in higher unemployment (and by extension possibly crime), wasted public funds and space.

A potent solution

Obviously, all current pavement hawkers will not be able to continue hawking viably while also following laws and regulations. Limited spaces can be provided in existing public infrastructure that can tackle the dual problem of getting them off the streets and also providing adequate livelihood. Shop spaces in the Borella underground is a good example. Maybe space can be given in major railway stations and bus stops but that will only mean that a very few of the currently afflicted will be able to continue work.

A potent solution must be a more dynamic one. It’ll involve a lot more reasearch into rooting out root causes and the studying of the communities involved. What causes people to enter into the pavement trade? Lack of opportunity, education; what? Is there any way their entrepreneurial capabilities can be directed towards a more productive industry that will also help build a more robust economy?

But is the government ready to undertake such deep study and come up with such solutions? are they even capable of it? Maybe a think tank should handle it. These imo, would be great areas for reconciliation work to take place. After all the potential for conflict, suffering and hardship is very high. This kind of intelligent reform, if it were to materialize, should definitely signal our entry bid into Asia’s list of top economies.

  1. Me-shak said:

    I have had to go through a load of shit cause of these pavement hawkers. Once I remember, this guy had sold shirts with no behind and sleeves to my grandma :O I know! I think if the government starts out like a factory with job vacancies that anyone can fill into, it would be great. Like the jobs that any tom dick or harry can do. Although I have disagree with the fact that the pavement hawkers make a little money, they surely make around 700 – 1000 bucks a day. If they work for 20 – 25 day for a month, they can make close to 20 K, and that is more than what people in call centers earn these days. Colombo, especially Pettah is much more easier to travel through after the hawkers were evicted. I hope the government spends some time working on a solution and implementing it soon, and it better be a good, long lasting one. Excellent post.


    • I remember the ‘pita nathi shirt’!!! Of course there are the unscrupulous types…you’ll get them anywhere. But I’m guessing they’re not all like that, and they’d probably like to have a more secure job. What’s the viability of having market places? So not like the Nugegoda Supermarket where they’re holed up inside that concrete monstrosity, but more like a pola. I suppose the trick is to clear up the streets without forcing these guys to move into more dangerous (and illegal) lines of work.

      I think a viable solution can be found, but it requires someone (or a group of people) to make it their business to sort it out. I dunno if that’s a priority for the govt at present?

  2. T said:

    A pavement hawker felt your bum?

  3. Sach said:

    Good one Whacko.

    While I agree that ‘most’ of the pavement business’ are impulse markets, not all of them are. For example, the Pamunuwa road-side clothe stalls are much more than pavement business. Having lived close by for few years and knowing many of the guys who do business there personally, I know it’s actually very good business – hard but good. And I was surprised to learn that people even from far distance places like Matara or Hambantota travel there each day to reserve a spot early. Also there is a constant customer base which comprise of many small and medium size cloth shop owners, tailors etc. So, relocating this kind of place is all for good – they in fact have been asking for a place for some time now as far as I know.

    Another example is road side fruit stalls – we have many in Kandy. People sometimes are reluctant to buy from them due to obvious sanitary reasons and they will only prosper if given a proper place.

    And about the true impulse businesses you’ve mentioned I agree that we need a broader solution. Those businesses base on created wants, not needs so best things is to make it sure nobody has to go there to do business. Which means eliminating poverty, but, well…

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